The intensity is high right off the bat.
It’s a relief to hear the sounds of sharpened steel on ice, sticks on pucks, pucks off glass, the thud of the ricocheting vulcanized rubber on leg pads. A lot of familiar faces populate the ice at the Mystique Community Ice Center these days.
There’s a mix of experience, and a mix of new. That mix will need to come together and look to continue a tradition of excellence that is unprecedented in the junior hockey landscape. It’s beyond crazy that a team can make the playoffs in ten straight seasons in a hyper-competitive league that is built on moving in waves of competitiveness.
Experience is no guarantee of success, but it’s a good indicator. More returners means more adaptation to the environment, and more understanding of the expectations. Perhaps no one could speak to it better than new head coach Greg Brown, who brings decades of hockey experience to the Fighting Saints organization behind the bench.
“The fewer players that have to adapt to a new living arrangement, a new league, the better,” Brown said. “They’ll help the new players adapt much quicker and grow into a team much quicker.”
The Saints had quite a few players last season adapt to not only a new town and a new living arrangement, but a very restricted lifestyle with health in mind during the height of the pandemic.
“Coach Brown and his staff have done a great job getting the team to come together early both on and off the ice,” said GM Kalle Larsson. “Returning players are usually a key ingredient to a competitive team in the USHL. Hence, we are happy to return a number of key players from last season’s team.”
The opening night roster will feature 13 players who have worn the red and white at some point. Over half of the roster knows what being a Fighting Saint entails.
“It’s definitely a huge help to have been there and done that before. You can always be confident because you know that you have been in the same situation,” said Connor Kurth, who enters his second season in Dubuque. “It’s also nice because you know how the league works and how you need to play every single night, so you don’t need to worry about that.”
Keeping experience behind the bench was also key for Brown, retained assistant coaches Evan Dixon and Justin Hale upon being hired. Both bring experience in Dubuque: what it takes, how it works. It’s a mix of savvy veteran experience and intuitive youth and enthusiasm behind the bench for the Fighting Saints, and it’s working. The coaching staff is a mature group that knows what the mission is. They know what the tradition means to the denizens of Dubuque.
“It’s great to be back,” said Hale. “I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to learn and work alongside Greg and Evan this season. We have a lot of exciting things going on right now, from the addition of our new president Robert Miller to the hiring of Greg. We have a solid group of returners and newcomers that have been awesome to work with on a daily basis.”
“I’m really grateful to be back in Dubuque for at third season. We have a great group of players and staff that make coming to the rink every day a lot of fun,” he said. “Experience has a major value in the USHL. Our returning players and leadership group have done an excellent job of being the example and helping our new players adjust.”
It’s no secret that the expectations are always high here in Dubuque, and after a sub-par overall year last season, compounded with the COVID calamity last season, it’s beyond time to get back to normal. It’s time to get back to winning championships. Brown is of a mind that, to be a championship team, a lot of little things have to go right. It is not some magic formula of just having the most talent.
The mood is light every day. Laughing, joking, pushing and shoving, all in good natured fun. On the ice, it’s a determined, focused group, focused on puck pressure and a relentless work ethic. The team is led by new captain Riley Stuart, and veterans Tristan Lemyre and Michael Feenstra. A day before the regular season began, the results of a team poll revealed the new leadership group, to a howl of cheers.
Stuart’s voice in the room is the loudest, and he assumed the mantle quickly among his peers. He’s affable and sarcastic most of the time, but when it’s time to be serious, he knows when to turn it on.
“Being named captain didn’t change much for me overall. I’ve always seen myself as a vocal and action leader,” Stuart said. “It’s an honor that other people see that in me as well.”
Lemyre’s commitment to hard work in the weight room and on the ice earned him a spot in the leadership group. His five-plus minute plank wowed everyone at camp. And Feenstra, drafted by the Fighting Saints in 2017, brings well over 120 games of junior experience to the team, all in Dubuque. He’s been there.
Throughout the preseason, this club had bite. They’re not afraid in any facet of the game. If you saw the first two preseason games against Green Bay, there were large swaths of the game in which their opposition was held completely helpless. They were physical. They tracked pucks. They were good.
Getting three out of four points at the Fall Classic was more of the same. Especially down a goal early in the third period versus Omaha, they dominated the game from there on and took the win. Max Burkholder has put the USHL on notice through the neutral zone with his propensity for laying people out. Shawn O’Donnell’s netfront goal sent the Saints home happy from Pittsburgh.
Newcomers are coming through. Top defense pair Axel Kumlin and Lucas Ölvestad are among the team’s leaders in scoring. Goaltenders Philip Svedebäck and Paxton Geisel have a team save percentage of .941 through the first three games. The mix looks balanced right now.
The team poured it on against Green Bay the next week with seven unanswered goals. Now, with Opening Night on the horizon, keeping that standard up is top of mind for the group.
“With this group of guys, there’s a different feeling with the team camaraderie. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the past and I think that will carry us through the season,” Stuart added. “If we work hard and focus on one week at a time, I believe this team can do big things.”
USHL fans are probably sick of the amount of overall success that the Saints have had. Many would equate it to the success of the New York Yankees, or the Los Angeles Lakers, or the New England Patriots. The organization has a .629 points percentage in 646 games across eleven-plus seasons. Losing seasons are just not an option.
More players from this team continue to pave the way at the collegiate and professional levels. The base of alumni continues to grow. Yes, it has been a while since the organization has enjoyed the highest height, but perhaps this is that time. Perhaps this May, the guys in red and white will be able to raise the Clark Cup once again.
“We couldn’t be more excited to play in front of our great fans this weekend,” Larsson said.
They’re off to a good start. But that’s just it—the start. There’s a long way to go, and journey continues Saturday.